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What Do You Stand For?

October 3, 2019

This painting is called Angelus Novus, or New Angel. It was created by the German artist Paul Klee in 1920. The original is now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It was donated to the museum by the scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, who inherited this work of art from his dear friend, the philosopher, Walter Benjamin. When Scholem gave the painting to the museum, he shared the story of how Walter Benjamin identified with this piece of art so passionately that the image of the angel became the foundation for Benjamin’s understanding of the unfolding of history.  In Benjamin’s essay, “On the Concept of History,” penned in 1940, he offers his interpretation of the painting, writing:

“…Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  

The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress…”

I encountered Benjamin’s description of the Angel of History in my first month of college. It was the week after September 11th, 2001 and we were grieving and grappling with how to move forward in the wake of this catastrophe. Since that fall, I have repeatedly imagined the “Angel of History” witnessing the events of our century, the avalanche of losses. He is trying with all his might to move his wings, yearning for a world that looks different – yet he is powerless to intervene.

This past year, as we mourned for our brothers and sisters gunned down in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, as our hearts broke for those killed picking out school supplies in El Paso, and young people whose lives were cut short in the streets of our city of Philadelphia – I have pictured the Angel of History – all of the wreckage rising at her feet – her mouth agape, tears dripping down her cheeks.

Angels appear often in the stories we tell and retell on our Yamim Noraim. Earlier today, before our Torah reading, I spoke about the angel who shows up to accompany Hagar and Ishmael in their exile in the wilderness. 

Tomorrow, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we will read the story of the Akedah – the binding of Isaac. I want to draw our attention to the way the midrash depicts that scene. In Midrash Vayosha, the rabbis imagine that a group of angels look down at Avraham as he ties his beloved son Isaac to the altar, heeding God’s command to sacrifice his child. As Avraham binds the boy’s hands and feet with rope, as he lifts his knife and draws it close to his son’s neck, the ministering angels watch in horror. They stand in rows upon rows, crying and weeping bitterly, as they say to one another, “How can this be? One who is a singular creation is about to commit an act of murder, and one who is a singular creation is about to be murdered.” 

They call out, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, what about the oath that you made with Avraham? That night when you took him outside and showed him all of the stars in the sky. When you said to him ‘Count them, if you are even able to count them. So shall your offspring be.’ Ribono Shel Olam, if Avraham kills Yitzchak, what is to become of your promise?”

As these angels stand in protest of the scene unfolding on Mount Moriah below, God is unsettled. The Holy One calls to the angel Michael, saying, “Mi’p’nei Mah Atah Omed? Why are you standing still? Do not let Avraham go on!”  

Michael, the angel of mercy, tears through the curtain of Heaven and calls to Avraham, not once, but twice, Avraham, Avraham.”  In distress, he cries out, “What is this terrible thing you are you about to do?” 

Avraham lowers his knife and lifts his eyes. He catches a glimpse of a ram rustling in the thicket. Isaac’s life is spared. The ram will take his place on the altar.

Each Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the birth and rebirth of the world, we remember the story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, and we cry out with the horn of the ram, that the world might change its course. That God might move from the throne of judgment to the throne of Mercy. And I imagine that bound up in the voice of the shofar is God’s call to the angel Michael, a call to all of us: Mipnei Mah Atah Omed? Why are you standing still?”

When we are overwhelmed by injustice,
by the destruction of life around us,
When we feel like Benjamin’s “Angel of History” – paralyzed and powerless,
when we call out to God for mercy –
God calls right back to us to be like the Angel Michael,
to get moving, to unleash our powers of compassion.

We hear an echo from the heavens, demanding,
“Mipnei Mah Atah Omed?
Why are you standing still?
Mipnei Mah Atah Omed? 
What do you stand for?”

How will you rise to this moment in history?
How will you turn things around?


Just over a week ago, I stood at City Hall on a sunny Friday afternoon, with over 3,000 people participating in the Global Youth Climate Strike. Teens led the way, holding signs that read, “As our oceans rise, so do we.” 

A young woman named Selene shared her story of her family in Puerto Rico, still reeling from the catastrophic damage of Hurricane Maria. She said, “We are here today fighting for a future where no human being is disposable.” 

Philly’s multi-generational crowd was counted among the millions worldwide who mobilized to fight for the future of our planet, for the survival of human beings and all beings. This movement of millions was catalyzed by one sixteen-year-old from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, who began skipping school on Fridays to sit alone in protest outside of Parliament – asserting that rising temperatures on earth are a matter of life and death and asking government officials and all grown-up’s everywhere, “Mipnei May Atah Omed?” Why are you standing still?”

Our children have been cast in the role of Isaac, pinned down on the altar, waiting for their futures go up in smoke. 

And our children are our angels crying out to us to find another way forward.

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the creation of the world and humanity and the potential for rebirth. Our hands are not bound. We can still change course. Scientists say it is not too late to act to avert the dire, sweeping and severe consequences of climate change. We humans have the power to reduce carbon emissions around the globe.

Mipnei Mah Anachnu Omed? What do we stand for? How might we spring into action?


And what holds us back from taking a stand? There are times when we feel tiny, pitted against the challenges of our times. We worry that our actions won’t matter or that we’ll fail to manifest the changes we long for…

To this end, the writer, Anne Lamott, relays a story from her pastor Veronica:

“There is a sparrow lying in the street with its legs straight in the air, sweating a little under its feathery arms. A warhorse walks up to the bird and asks, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ The sparrow replies, ‘I heard the sky was falling, and I wanted to help.’ The horse laughs a big, loud, sneering horse laugh, and says, ‘Do you really think you’re going to hold back the sky, with those scrawny little legs?’ And the sparrow says, ‘One does what one can.’”

I believe wholeheartedly that there are all kinds of possibilities for how we might take a stand in the midst of the storms swirling around us. From the global to the local, we all have the power to act in ways that affirm life and generate love in our world.

I want to give an example of a seemingly small and deeply meaningful act of lovingkindness we experienced this past year in our BZBI community:

After the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue last October, our neighbors from the Preschool at Tenth Presbyterian Church delivered heart-shaped cards to the children of our Laurie Wagman Playschool and Abigail R. Cohen Preschool at BZBI.

They wrote:

BZBI Friends,
We care about you.
The Bear Class at 10th PreSchool
You are Loved! Your friends in the Froggie Class at 10th Church

To our Friends at BZBI,
We feel better when we get hugs and pencils and scissors.
We are happy when people share with us and they say they are sorry.
Maybe you could pretend to be a caterpillar or ride a horse to school.
From Your Pre-K Friends at 10th Church Pre-School

In the midst of our grief and our fear, our neighbors showed up to say –
You are beautiful. You are beloved. You are worthy of life.

We heard our neighbors saying, “We stand with you.”


In this moment when so many vulnerable groups in our country are hurting, the Jewish community has been showing up for others, too. Here in our BZBI community and beyond. Driven in no small part by the climate crisis, there are currently more refugees worldwide than at any other time in human history. At BZBI, we have been working in partnership with HIAS Pennsylvania and Society Hill Synagogue to build a relationship with and support one family of refugees. Suzana and Merthus Mbonigaba and their five children came from the Congo through Namibia to Philadelphia three years ago.  BZBI’ers, led by Anne Albert, Rebecca Krasner and Shira Rudovsky, have been making a difference, volunteering with the Mbonigaba family multiple times a week to help them with their medical, educational and material needs, enjoying each other’s company and celebrating the arrival of their youngest child, Eliyah.

These acts of lovingkindness are revolutionary. In response to hearts hardening and doors slamming in the faces of the world’s most vulnerable people, they are profound acts of hope.

We are working to build a community, a city and a country where refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers and all our fellow human beings are seen as beautiful, beloved and worthy of dignity and life. At the times we feel most powerless, we can choose how to respond. We can stand with one another.


In his reading of the Angelus Novus painting, Walter Benjamin saw the world closing in on itself. His Angel of History was immobilized, suspended in time.

Our angels in the Midrash in the Akeidah story begin in this place of despair, frozen by overwhelm.

Yet, the story doesn’t end there. God calls out to the angel Michael, “Mipnei Mah Atah Omed?” Michael rises up. He intervenes in the scene. He saves Isaac’s life. He flips the story upside down and turns the world right side up. 

In the midst of great uncertainty, our ancient, sacred stories call on us to search the darkness for signs of life, for meaning and for hope; 

To live as though what we do matters greatly. 

To remember that we have the power to act. 

We come together each year on Rosh Hashanah to remember that transformation is possible. 

The shofar calls out to us.

We hear the voices of our youth gathered at City Hall along with millions around the world demanding life. We see the faces of refugees risking their lives for a better future for their children. We feel our neighbors standing with us in solidarity and love.

If we listen closely, there is a ram rustling in the thicket. There are rows and rows of angels calling out our names, and a still, small voice asking: 

What will you stand for this year? Mip’nei mah atah omed?

(Angel Niggun)